Fairytale Ballet Heralds Festive Season

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Prokofiev, Cinderella: Birmingham Royal Ballet, Royal Ballet Sinfonia / Koen Kessels (conductor), Birmingham Hippodrome, 21.11.2012 (GR)

Choreography:  David Bintley
Design:  John F Macfarlane
Lighting:  David A Finn

Principal Characters/Dancers:    
Cinderella:  Elisha Willis
The Prince:   Iain Mackay
Skinny:  Samara Downs
Dumpy:  Carol-Anne Millar
Stepmother:  Marion Tait
Fairy Godmother:  Victoria Marr

Elisha Willis as Cinderella; photo Bill Cooper

It’s official; the festive season is here! The opening night of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s traditional pre-Christmas ballet is always a special occasion and this one on Nov 21st 2012 at the Birmingham Hippodrome proved to be no exception. This year it was time to give Peter Wright’s Nutcracker a rest and revive another family fairytale that on this showing might easily become as much of a favourite, Prokofiev’s Cinderella. Premiered only two years ago, BRB’s acclaimed production by Director David Bintley contains its fair share of pantomime perennials. You won’t find a Buttons or a Baron Hardup, but everything else is there – goodies and baddies, frogs and lizards, clocks and coaches.

Top billing went to Elisha Willis, our damsel in distress, re-establishing the Cinderella she danced in 2010. This goodie wasn’t just good; she was brilliant. Bintley has crafted a role that requires a dancer with a sound technique in classical ballet and emotional depth; Willis can tread the boards in both senses of the word and is made for the part. Barefoot and in rags in Act I (see pic), she portrayed two sides of this unfortunate victim’s character – the downtrodden butt of her horrendous stepsisters’ jokes and her innocent and amiable disposition, willing to help anyone worse off than herself. Having undergone the traditional transformation in Act II, she showed what could be done with a pair of ballet shoes, as graceful and acrobatic as I have seen her. The pas de deux with Iain MacKay as the Prince was dynamic and dazzling. Mackay, as dashing as always, provided a perfect foil for this Cinderella. His lifts were astronomical, particularly a one-arm elevation and pose that brought murmurs of approval around me. Back among the cinders in the final act, Willis looked besotted, reminiscing about her dancing partner of the previous evening, lovingly gliding about the stage with only her kitchen broom as a partner; her smile and movement said it all, reminding me of the words ‘Some day my prince will come’.

One aspect revamped by Bintley in his drama was how he envisaged the pantomime dames.  A former ‘Ugly Sister’ himself in a 1980s Frederick Ashton production, Bintley has said, ‘I’m using real women and trying to make real, but of course exaggerated, people out of them, with a history and real characteristics. Dumpy is fat because she eats all the time, but Skinny has sickled feet and an eating disorder brought on by the excesses of her sister’. Both a beefed-up Carol-Anne Millar as Dumpy and Samara Downs as Skinny were real all right, and highly amusing too. In Act I, I loved their combined antics: the clever manoeuvres with the bowls and spoons following breakfast; the inflated reactions that came across when the invitation to the ball arrived; the conviction that their ball gowns might actually make them beautiful. That two such accomplished dancers as Downs and Millar could at times look less than fully coordinated was to their credit. Both had their chances to take the spotlight in Act II, Downs attempting to win over the Major Domo with a bit of calf rubbing and a fleeting impression of a pole dancer. And Millar getting her hands on a Cup Cake from a passing tray of delights amused everyone; her antics while attempting to get her dumpy foot into the crystal slipper were wonderful.

Facial images were a positive feature of this show and leading the way were those from Marion Tait as the wicked Stepmother, another example of perfect casting. Her disdain at discovering Cinderella’s sparkling crystal shoes was a picture of hate and bitterness. There was an malicious triumph in her manner at receiving a communication from the palace, as if to say ‘If only he might take one of my daughters off my hands’. Later another trait was spelt out, bowing and scraping when the Prince came to her house in Act III, searching for the mysterious owner of the jewelled slipper; she even had a try at putting on the shoe herself!

Before Bintley agreed to create his individualistic ballet version of this fairytale, his one proviso was that John F. MacFarlane would be his Designer. Thank goodness MacFarlane said ‘Yes’. The sets and costumes of this production illustrated why MacFarlane is one the U.K.’s most respected stage designers, attentive to the overall scenario and minutiae alike. Even before the action began, there was a reminder on the safety curtain of how the hour of midnight plays such an important part with the image of a clock face pointing to six minutes to twelve. But with an offset dial maybe this was a foretaste of things to come.  The drab opening scene was typical Cinderella, a basement kitchen with its access stairs, table and dark recessed fireplace, a blackness and mist that allowed the beggar woman (Victoria Marr) to emerge as if by magic.

When Marr returned as the fairy godmother to oversee the preparation of Cinderella for the ball, she was, in Bintley’s version, the spirit of Cinderella’s dead mother. This scene endorsed the BRB emphasis of this as a family entertainment. Momoko Hirata’s lovely solo as Spring was followed by the scurrying around of two mice pages (Naomi Embury and Gwen Fawcett-Wood from the Elmshurst School for Dance) and two lizard footmen (Valentin Olovyannikov and Lewis Turner) together with the commanding Frog Coachman of James Barton, all in their magnificent costumes (see pic). The other three seasons represented by Laëtitia Lo Sardo, Angel Paul and Delia Matthews all helped to effect the transformation of Cinderella from rags to finery, ending in a gorgeous tableau to close Act I.

The lighting of David Finn was particularly noticeable in two Act II displays. Firstly, as the back screen opening widened for Cinderella dramatic entry into the ballroom, he created a stunning sensation of sunlight and spotlight. Then as midnight approached, the rotating cogs of a clockwork mechanism, together with the giant dial and clock hands moving inexorably towards twelve, helped to  provide a sumptuous coup de theatre; Finn and MacFarlane had fashioned the perfect combination of visual and sonic effects. Keeping time with the ticking of the clock were the arm movements of the corps de ballet, as prominent here in their 18th century costumes as thay had been in their earlier bling moment of the Grand Waltz.

Koen Kessels and the Royal Ballet Sinfonia took all this together with the magnificent score of Prokofiev in their stride. There were some memorable musical moments for me: the moody Prologue that portrayed the loneliness of a young Cinderella at her mother’s graveside; the pure joy that accompanied Cinderella’s worship of her crystal shoes in Act I; the high jinks of the Act II ensemble to some of the music from The Love of Three Oranges; the triumphant strains from Act III that graced the closing pas de deux of the reunited lovers.

So Nutcracker or Cinderella – which wins the Christmas vote? Tchaikovsky possibly shades it on the music, but the storyline of Cinderella, particularly with Bintley’s interpretation, has a better continuity. It’s a close thing!

Geoff Read